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European honey bee, Apis mellifera, colony, hive, closeup
Apis Species, Common honeybees


Honeybees are probably the most beneficial insects to us humans. Not only do they produce honey, a tasty and nutritious sweetener, but they also pollinate important food crops, especially fruits and nuts. The job that honeybees do is critical to agricultural production. Without them, we could not enjoy a lot of foods we take for granted.

Honey bees were brought to the New World by early settlers. The species Apis mellifera, generally called the European or common honey bee, is native to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It is the most beneficial bee to humans, as a producer of honey, beeswax, and as a pollinator. It's said that the economic value of honeybees as pollinators is 15-20 times the value of their honey and wax production. The common honey bee is used world-wide in beekeeping.

honey bee, closeup on flower, Apis mellifera
honey bee, closeup on flower, Apis mellifera



European honey bee, colony, hive, in tree
European honey bee, colony, hive, in tree

honey bee, Apis mellifera, colony, hive, closeup
honey bee, Apis mellifera, colony, hive, closeup

Like other bees, Apis mellifera are social insects. They are cavity nesters, building their combs in hollow trees, hollow walls of houses and other such sheltered areas. Your author's grandfather had a healthy colony of honey bees living in the 2nd story exterior wall of his farmhouse. Other species, especially those native to tropic regions, build their nests in the open.

honey bee on flower
honey bee on flower

Apis mellifera, honey bee on leaf
Apis mellifera, honey bee on leaf

Despite being armed with barbed stingers and venom, European honey bees have relatively mild dispositions and are not easily provoked into attack. The Caucasian variety which originated in the Caucasus Mountains is one of the gentlest varieties of honey bees, making it desirable for beginning beekeepers. The most common species in Kansas, and probably much of the Midwestern U.S., is the three-banded Italian variety originally from northern Italy. It is also known as the golden Italian when it has five yellow bands on its abdomen.


Africanized bees are not nearly as friendly. In 1956, a number of queen bees from Southern Africa were brought to Brazil. It was an experiment intended to improve production in an area in which European bees had not performed well. Some of these queens escaped, and the more aggressive African bees came to dominate their more docile cousins.

The resulting "Africanized" bees spread rapidly and now have reached some of our southern states. They are quite aggressive and have been known to vigorously attack humans in large numbers. Some people have been stung so profusely, they died as a result.

On the right, you can see a friendly three-banded Italian honey bee.

honey bee on flower stem
honey bee on flower stem

There have been other attempts to introduce bee species into new areas, generally with unintended consequences. These attempts can result in such problems as the introduction of new diseases and parasites. It can be especially problematic where there is no natural immunity to these diseases, and, in the case of parasites, a lack of native natural enemies.
Honey bees mate in flight. Queens fly out of their hives when they are only a few days old. Male drones flying in the area are attracted by the new queen bee pheromones. When a male catches a queen, they mate, and he dies soon afterward. This is because some of the drone's reproductive parts break off and remain in the queen after mating. She may mate with several drones, saving their sperm for future use during her egg-laying life.





Reproduction takes place in the colony. The process usually involves a single reproductive female (the queen), many nonreproductive females (the workers), and, during the reproductive season, a few reproductive males (the drones). Colonies reproduce by swarming during a period when food is plentiful. Several young queens are produced, and the old queen leaves the colony with a swarm of half the workers to find a new hive site. One of the young queens' mates and takes over the parent colony, while the "surplus" young queens are killed.

Honeybees are fascinating, and very important, social insects. Now you know a little more of their lives, history and importance to agriculture.

Andrew Williams / CritterZone.com
Literature cited
Carde, Ring T. 2003 Encyclopedia of Insects Academic Press pgs.37-38
Salsbury, Glenn A., White, Stephan C. 2000 Insects in Kansas
Kansas Department of Agriculture, pgs.15-16
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honey bee on leaf
honey bee on leaf